Steve Epstein: Doorman

Sylvia Levine talks with Steve Epstein, former doorman and floor manager at various NYC clubs

Hard core jazz fans and musicians who have spent serious time hanging out in New York jazz clubs know the people behind the scenes, who comprise an essential part of the jazz community, but who are neither musicians nor club owners. For more than twenty years, these unsung heroes have contributed to the ambience of the city’s legendary jazz rooms—and have served jazz—by communicating their own love and respect for the artists and the music as they perform their responsibilities—as bartender, waitress or doorman. It is time to document the stories of some of the people who helped us all feel at home. We dedicate this series to the memory of Gerry Houston, long-time waitress at the Village Vanguard, who died last year.

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Steve Epstein

The subject of this week’s column is Steve Epstein, doorman extraordinaire. He has worked the door and/or been floor manager at New York jazz clubs including: Sweet Basil, the Blue Note, Visiones, Sweet Rhythm, and the Knitting Factory. He presently crunches numbers in the office of the Flatiron Lounge, which pipes in recorded jazz music all night, and is one half of the comedy duo Epstein and Hassan. I spoke with Steve about his life in service of jazz.

- Sylvia Levine Leitch

Steve Epstein:

I worked in New York jazz clubs for twenty-five years—mostly as a doorman or a floor manager, but also in the office. It all started in 1985 when I needed a job and went to Sweet Basil for an interview with Mel LItoff and Phyllis Weisbart, who owned the club at the time. Although I liked jazz, you couldn’t really say that I was a true jazz fan when I first walked into Sweet Basil. I didn’t know a lot about the music. At the interview, Phyllis asked me what I liked in jazz. I remember saying that I liked Pat Metheny or Al Dimeola or someone that’s basically more of a rock-jazz kind of player than what I would think of now as a jazz player. But she hired me anyway, part-time at first. Ralph Christian had been the door person for a really long time, then Matthew Jones, James Earl Jones’s brother. So Matthew left to go to LA within six weeks of me starting there part time and I became the full-time door person working five nights a week.

I worked for Mel and Phyllis—and Horst Liepolt, who became their club manager—from 1985 until 1991 or 1992, when they sold the place to the Japanese group, and I stayed for a couple more years. I heard that the selling price was three million dollars, just for the club and the name Sweet Basil. It seemed kind of bizarre to me when the deal went down, because the whole building wasn’t worth three million dollars. I don’t know why they didn’t buy the building. But that isn’t what happened—they wanted that world-famous jazz club. At that time Japanese groups were buying a lot of trophies in New York, like Radio City. They wanted the Vanguard, of course, but Max didn’t want to sell. By the time the offer for Sweet Basil came in, Mel was definitely ready to sell. He was around the club less and less, Horst ran everything, and that was cool with me. Horst really knew the music and made smart bookings—he’d have regular groups and then if he liked someone coming up, he’d give that group a week too. He was a big fan of Peter’s, for example [the writer’s husband, guitarist Peter Leitch]–you need to have someone believe in you and Horst would do that for the artists he thought deserved it.

From 1985 until Mel sold the place was an incredible time—an amazing experience for me and for everyone there. I loved working at Sweet Basil. The club was really successful, there were a lot of people coming in; the greatest jazz in the world was being played there. I got to meet and just be around these guys, being the floor manager and doorman, you get to know them. I was there all the time. Art Blakey—you know he said I was like his son. He would say that he had adopted me—well, he adopted many people, ok, that’s true, but he adopted me.

Those six years, in particular, when the music was phenomenal and the club was always packed, a tremendous energy existed there. I not only loved the music, but I truly grew to love and respect the musicians. I’ve always said that jazz musicians as a sort of group of human beings are the greatest people in the world—the best, smartest people I have ever met. They are really kind, good people. Because Horst would book the same groups over and over, I was able to form relationships with them. At that time we had Art Blakey, McCoy Tyner, Art Farmer and Benny Golson, the Jazztet, David Murray, Abdullah Ibrahim, Gil Evans, Doc Cheatham, Mal Waldron, Richard Davis: Those were regulars, sometimes for two weeks at a time. And I’d be there five nights a week, three sets a night. I got to know them and their music pretty well, very well, I think.

After Mel and Horst left, everything started to change. It wasn’t just the change in ownership, of course. Art died, that was the big thing for me, for a lot of people. The new owners hired a new manager, Richard Nakano, who I didn’t really get along with that well; his big thing was to do a Village Jazz Festival, kind of taking the idea from Mel and Phyllis who had done the Dewar’s Jazz Festival a few years earlier—actually, I think they had gotten their idea from James Browne in the first place. Before James became involved with Sweet Basil, he had been a program host on WBGO for years.

Many unrelated events kind of came together and ended up with me leaving Sweet Basil the first time—some of these problems hit other jazz clubs too. The new owners started out with a lot of money, tons of money, and then the economy in Japan began to go bad; these rich businessmen had to think about cutting back. But before that really affected us, the Japanese group got behind the Panasonic/Greenwich Village Jazz Festival and looked to hire people to organize the bookings and promotions on behalf of Sweet Basil’s part in it. They were looking for recognizable faces from the jazz community to be the face of Sweet Basil for the festival. Chi, Cho and I met with Richard and basically—because we’d been involved with the club so long and knew who could do the job right—suggested James Browne and Stanley Crouch; Stanley was influential, powerful in the jazz world by then, and he wrote some press releases for them. James organized the festival awesomely, took the work very seriously, and—you know, Panasonic is said to have put a few hundred thousand into it—made some money from it.

So the owners of Sweet Basil, impressed with the way the festival worked out—and why wouldn’t they be?—put James Browne in charge of bookings and made him their manager in a sense. Not long before that, they fired me. The way I see it, they needed to reduce costs at that point—they wanted James so they had to get rid of a salary. I was making good money—they had promoted me and maybe I was earning more than a person should in that job, I don’t know. But in way, looking back on it, I could say that recommending James to organize the festival put me out of a job. Of course, James hired me again—but that was years later.

While all this went on and while I was still at Sweet Basil, the jazz economy itself went haywire. Sweet Basil lost some of its top-drawing acts. The Blue Note and then the Iridium came up on the scene, paying a ton of money to the musicians: a TON. For example, someone like McCoy Tyner would be working at our place for five thousand a week; suddenly he’s at the Blue Note for $30,000 a week. And we couldn’t compete with the Blue Note on that level. We just couldn’t. (Funny, I eventually worked at the Blue Note myself.) And the same kind of thing happened with the Iridium. They could pay a lot more money than Sweet Basil. I don’t really know how they could do that. But the upshot is that a lot of our acts left the rotation—McCoy in particular. Art Farmer stayed; Nat Adderley stayed—and after Art Blakey died, Nat became a main act there—I used to introduce the band, go up on the stage and announce, so I remember the names of all the people in that group: you know, Bookie, Jimmy Cobb, everybody.

One other really important thing that happened at Sweet Basil is that I met my wife, Naima. I worked the door and, you know, the classic thing in the jazz community is not to pay the cover charge. It’s an old jazz tradition that cool people don’t pay; only squares pay. It was always that way—now that rents are so high, not so much anymore. Everybody pays now. But in that time, people would expect to slide. They’d offer me bribes, money, drugs, stuff worth more than the door charge sometimes, just to keep that classic thing going. So Naima wanted in and I did let her slide. And she came back a few days later with a batch of homemade cookies! That was a unique bribe! We still laugh about it.

I had an unbelievably strong attachment to Sweet Basil: The place, the music, the musicians, the job—working with Chi, Cho and Allyson was an ideal situation—I just loved it. But by 1994 when those other situations happened, I was out.

Move to Visiones and the Blue Note

I didn’t stay out of work long. Funny, I still remember exactly what happened next. I was standing on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Third Street, talking to Abraham Burton and two other guys that I had known since they were kids hanging out at Sweet Basil with their dads, Nasheet Waits and Eric McPherson—now they’re pretty big names themselves. Anyway, while we were talking, Gust Tsilis, who played vibes and managed the club Visiones just down the street, came up to us and I told him I’d just lost my job. Gust offered me a job on the spot.

I was at Visiones for two years, 1994 and 1995. Gust is a really great guy. He did an excellent job booking Visiones: he had creative ideas and loved the music. Because he was a serious musician himself, he was on the scene and had a good sense of who to book. I remember he brought in Maria Schneider with her band and he also got Victor Lewis. I liked him and liked working with him. The owner, Andy Lugris, was a good guy, too, but he was no businessman. He just didn’t behave like an owner—you didn’t get that sense about him. Even though he was a lawyer, and even with the fact that his family owned the building, he still couldn’t keep the place going. Anyway, Visiones was sold for cash, I think, to the Blue Note, and Andy disappeared. I heard recently that he passed. Still, they were good to me—they even came to my first show, my wife and I have a comedy show that we’re still doing called “She’s Black, He’s Jewish, Oy,” and we were pretty pleased to see the guys I worked for in the audience.

From there I ended up half a block west at the Blue Note for a few years. Even though I stayed there awhile, it wasn’t a good fit. That was the hardest job I ever had! I was the floor manager: nine waitresses, a lot of money coming in—very stressful. And because I always hung out in that aisle by the door between the bar and the room, I couldn’t really hear the music or feel it. Maybe the sound is better right up near the stage. But big stars played the Blue Note, still do, like Herbie Hankock, Chaka Khan, on that level, and I did get to know some of the musicians. Danny Ben Susan’s son, Steven, had started to run things—you know, the family owns a lot of real estate in the city and have other high-end Blue Notes all over, they opened BB King’s while I was there; what I’m saying is that the vibe felt corporate, kind of cold. They didn’t encourage, didn’t welcome, regulars or any kind of repeat business coming in; they wanted the tourist trade. I left right before the Christmas bonus got handed out; the Blue Note gave out these bonuses, the only jazz club I ever worked in that did that!

I can’t say that the Blue Note treated me badly. It wouldn’t be true. At first, I had fun—you know, Art Blakey used to tell me that I was the best doorman in jazz other than “that midget guy that worked at Birdland” (Peewee Marquette) and maybe I was! The great Blue Note General Manager when I started there, Jenny Madden, was really good at her job and a pretty cool person too. But then the owners transferred her to BB King’s and brought in another Israeli guy—family, I guess; I didn’t like him and I quit.

I already said the corporate atmosphere didn’t suit me. There are cameras everywhere; sure, the musicians earn good money, and I wasn’t paid badly, but here’s an example. You know I don’t drink much—never did. So the Bensusans didn’t want the staff to drink—at all—and that didn’t cause a problem with me usually. But one day I came in right after learning that my father in-law had died; I was kind of shaken up. The bartender felt bad for me and said, “Look, have a beer.” So I did. A few days later I got called into the office. The camera had picked up me and my one beer. “I said, “You guys have got to be kidding me,” and even told them what had led to this single beer. But they were always sure that people were stealing from them. That place was so successful, that kind of attitude just doesn’t make sense. It made the Blue Note a miserable place to work.

I also think that the Blue Note and the Iridium were really bad for the middle range of jazz artists. They were great for that top tier in that they established a new pay level for them, but there was a lot less room for the solid musicians with lesser names, artists who weren’t going to draw as well. The Iridium was run by the Sturm family—not nice people at all in the way they treat other people; they own a lot of businesses, super- successful businesses, and just jumped right into that high money thing. I understand that one of them, Ronnie Sturm, is into music, but who knows?

I worked at Birdland one weekend after I left the Blue Note, 1999 or 2000, it’s hard to remember exactly. The club had just opened in the new, revitalized Times Square area and I knew the booker, Andy Kaufman, a really nice guy. But when I got there the owner wouldn’t tell me how much I was making. He kept telling me not to worry about it. I said, “I’m not going to deal with this.” I was offended by that runaround. I have a partner, a wife. I have to know how much I’m making—whatever it is.

Downtown at the Knitting Factory

So a little later I went to the Knitting Factory downtown on Leonard Street, and took a different kind of job—a real manager’s job in the office. Twelve hours a day. They had five different bars operating simultaneously and I had to deal with a lot of paperwork. I didn’t really consider it to be a jazz club; it didn’t have jazz all the time, and when it did have jazz it was the kind that—well, that I hate. You know, over the years I have tried to have an open mind about jazz, I basically learned about this music on the job and developed my ear by listening to all that amazing music—Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter, Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins—I heard so many great artists. I really love that kind of jazz, and I really love the Gil Evans Orchestra kind of jazz even though they were more fusion by the time I was listening to them at Sweet Basil. Some nights they were amazing. I don’t consider myself locked into one style of jazz. George Adams played amazing stuff. And Doc Cheatham, I enjoy that kind of music too. But I hated what they call avant garde jazz.

I remember that Horst liked avant garde jazz, when I was at Sweet Basil. Every year he would have the Music Is an Open sky Festival, and put on that kind of music, you know, like Andrew Cyrille—nice guys. But their music is hard to work to. Maybe if I was just sitting there I would have gotten into it more.

So the Knitting Factory had avant garde jazz and attracted a pretty weird sort of clientele. That music brings in only men—single men without a friend, that was the joke around there. I would never see a woman come into the Knitting Factory for the music. The typical customer was a single intellectual nerdy guy by himself who doesn’t want to spend any money, dresses badly, maybe brings food in a brown paper bag. Of course, I wasn’t working out in the room; my job was in the office.

So when the Knitting Factory had jazz during my time there, that was the kind they had. They still do the Vision Festival every year, I think. Michael Dorf was the owner and I would say that he was my least favorite person in jazz—and I have dealt with most if not all of the jazz club owners in New York. I guess he is a visionary of sorts—but he can’t operate a business day to day. That’s my opinion from what I’ve seen. You know, he used to scalp his own tickets—go out on the street and sell them—to keep the ticket office from taking a percentage of sales! You see a lot of crazy things in this business.

Working at Sweet Rhythm

I left the Knitting Factory and I heard that James Browne was opening up Sweet Rhythm, a year after Sweet Basil was closed in the same spot—it sat empty that whole year. I thought: He’s back! He called me and I went to work for him. He had already hired Richie Okon to be his manager when he hired me for the door. But as soon as I started I was full time. Richie really loves the music; he knows who’s good and he knew some obscure people in jazz who are excellent and who people will come out to hear, so he did some smart booking, working with James. But a couple of years into it Richie got fired and then James was on his own with the booking. We didn’t really advertise—there was some mixup with the Voice and they cut out our ads. There were some free listings that we didn’t take advantage of. James would say, “What is it going to get us, four people?” But Horst used to say that even if a listing got us four people, those four people would bring four other people who would tell four other people and so on. It would be worthwhile.

By the time that Sweet Rhythm opened I had known James for years. Remember, I brought James Browne into that room in the first place. So I really liked him, still love him! The best boss I ever had. He and his partner Martha Baratz opened that room. Martha had a good job at Bear Stearns, she was a vice president, I believe. Then the stock market crashed and money became very tight. We were booking lesser acts, paying less, the music wasn’t great. Sometimes, acts would be booked the same week—or the same night—that they were supposed to appear.

Even with the bad business choices, James treated me right, always. The comedy act that my wife and I have was given a regular home; we performed at Sweet Rhythm more and more, building an audience and having a good time. And you know, we got some other bookings, we recently had a European tour. Now we also do a radio show, New York Talk Radio on the Internet. We even interviewed Todd Barkan from Dizzy’s— I used to know him as a customer in the clubs; that was a great interview.

So at the end of August Sweet Rhythm closed after a long decline. People couldn’t even understand why we stayed open as long as we did. But I was in a bind—I needed a job bad. The economy had tanked and I sent out resumes for months with no bites. Then—this shows how much the jazz community matters—a woman I know, Beth Zucker, runs Jazz Meetup, which is an organization where 20 or 30 people who like jazz meet up in a different club every week or month or whatever; she suggested that I contact Alex from the Zinc Bar to see if I could work there. So I had this in my mind and then I got a call from a place that had my resume; the general manager wanted to set up an interview. I looked the place up and it turns out to be owned by the Zinc Bar’s Alex and his sister Christina, along with a couple of other people; Alex’s brother is the principal owner. There are a number of spots they own with the same theme: a woman named Julie Reiner thought it up , like a jazz speakeasy with professional mixologists making retro-type cocktails. That’s where I am now, in the office at the Flatiron Lounge a couple of shifts a week, doing math, hearing jazz 12 hours a day, but piped in, not live. Occasionally I do fill in at the Zinc on the door and I hear live music then, which I really love, and get to be with people. Plus, now Naima and I do our show at the Zinc sometimes, an opportunity we’re glad to have.

I miss the interactions with the musicians the most, so many smart, great people. And I miss that interaction with the Black intelligentsia in the clubs, all these brilliant people in a world, where Black, White, Asian people are just hanging out, throwing ideas around, carrying on deep discussions, where race is not an issue, no one’s noticing—that is so rare in America. It doesn’t happen outside of the jazz world. I can see myself sometime in the future getting back into the music world. But I’ve already been everywhere…so many of the great artists are gone or, in some cases, burnt out and just going through the motions. And the interaction is different in the rooms, now. We’ll see. I’ve heard more great music than anyone alive, I think—five nights a week, three sets a week, maybe I got a little burnt out too. Finally, I’m looking forward to maybe going out and hearing some live music.

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